Chettinad still glows with the memories of opulence and ingenuity
The interior of Lakshmi Vilas in Poolankurichi (Photo: Vikramponappa)
About 50 kilometres northwest of Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu’s arid southern interior, in the village of Poolankurichi, a pair of silvery gates flanked by blue pillars opens into a world far removed from the hubbub of the street with motorbike salesmen shouting into a loudspeaker. It must be hard convincing people to take a test ride under the scorching sun. Or perhaps not. This is Chettinad, after all, a land forever flush with heat. Even a short walk can seem punishing, and the rains bring barely any respite. But step inside one of the old Chettiar mansions with their vast thresholds, checkerboard-tiled halls and open-to-sky courtyards and you instantly feel enveloped by familiar comforts. I meet Vikram Ponnappa, a Bengaluru-based architect and restorer, at Lakshmi Vilas’ cool, understated veranda. The statement teak doorway should have prepared me for the sights that lay beyond. As soon as I set foot inside, the crazy opulence of the mansion wallops me. A high painted ceiling with carved borders runs the length of the large hall that is the piece de resistance of the house. Look upon it from the first floor and you can see yourself partaking of the many weddings celebrated here over the past century. Spotless Belgian bevelled mirrors, Italian glass chandeliers, Spanish tile borders and a profusion of paintings of gods, landscapes, Gandhi and other icons of pre-Independence India make this mansion—and thousands of others in Chettinad—an unlikely and unique architectural confection, a home for a traditional Hindu joint family as well as a showcase of the remarkable success of the Chettiars, a mercantile class that amassed great fortunes trading gems, silk, spices and salt and lending money to small and medium-scale businesses in Southeast Asia till World War II. Deeply religious, family-oriented and endogamous, Chettiars were unapologetic capitalists whose love for beautiful things did not lead them to pursue excessive lifestyles. Within these conspicuous homes spread across 75-plus dusty villages dwelt people who were frugal at heart, preserving food for the dry months, building and maintaining temples, ponds and public infrastructure.
“The attention to detail is something to marvel at,” says Ponnappa, who has helped restore the building over the past three years. “There are elements of Western architectural styles but the house has clearly been built for this family.” He fishes inside a dark front room for the key that opens the front doors—they must weigh a tonne but swing open effortlessly on the hinges. The key clicks in the lock and with every anti-clockwise turn, sounds an invisible gong. “The idea was to alert the people of the house, and to serve as an alarm in the mornings. The family was expected to wake up, bathe, cook and eat together.”
“To Chettiars, family is everything,” says Chocko Valliappa, managing director of the Sona Group, a century-old business house with interests in education, construction, IT, textiles and biotech across south India. He is one of the co-owners of Lakshmi Vilas and the driving force behind its renovation. Chettiars haven’t lost their sense of belonging, he says—they continue to value family and social ties. “The extended family gathers at the ancestral home several times a year—for weddings, events, festivals. It is an important part of who we are, but many families can no longer afford to maintain a home like that,” says Valliappa. As opportunities faded with the war, so did the fortunes of the Chettiars, and capital became scarce, scuppering their celebrated spirit of enterprise. Those who managed to bring home large sums, such as the Murugappas, set up industries; some others like the SLN Group cemented their position as coffee planters and exporters, while a number of families invariably strayed from the path of prosperity. “Have you heard of the festival of risk?” Valliappa asks me, before playing a video of him and his father offering a prayer to Ganesha and swallowing a morsel set on fire. “Our seafaring ancestors undertook risky voyages armed with nothing but their faith in god. Swallowing fire before god is a custom that has been handed down and we see it as a celebration of our propensity to take chances.” What he leaves unsaid is that Chettiars who took up safe, cushy jobs in the West have some soul-searching to do.
Indeed, the history of enterprise and philanthropy in India is incomplete without a mention of the torchbearers of Chettiar values who built institutions and industries in pre-Independence India. RM Alagappa Chettiar, hailed as a ‘socialist capitalist’ by Jawaharlal Nehru, is an unsung industrialist who should rightly be remembered alongside other greats of Indian business. From rubber, tin, textiles, chemicals and pharmaceuticals to education, hospitality, insurance and even aviation, there was scarcely a sector he left untouched. When the British sold off their Dakota planes after the war, he bought eight of them to start Madras’ first airline, and used his planes not only to ferry royals and VIP guests to his daughter’s wedding in Karaikudi but also for airlifting refugees and distributing humanitarian aid. The arts college he started in Karaikudi, and his generous contributions towards setting up a string of institutions that later became Alagappa University, proved truly transformative for Chettinad. “Karaikudi is a good catchment area of young talent,” says Swaminathan Prabhu Manimaran, senior manager, Zoho Accounts, who moved from Chennai to act as the local anchor for Zoho’s new spoke office in Kottaiyur, Karaikudi, in 2021. The office, housed in an old Chettinad building, has inspired other software companies to set up shop in the region.
Another institution started by a Chettiar, Annamalai University in Chidambaram, is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the country today. SRmM Annamalai Chettiar, who was conferred the hereditary title of Raja of Chettinad in 1929, was a pioneering banker, administrator and educationist. A member of the Madras Legislative Council for three consecutive terms, he was the maternal grandfather of former Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram. Over 250 km north of Chettinad, in Salem, another Chettiar left an indelible mark on the socio-economic landscape, setting up 19 educational institutions. Karumuttu Thiagarajan Chettiar was a wealthy industrialist and banker who owned a number of textile mills, but he is equally well-known for his contributions to the freedom struggle. The moral legacies these illustrious Chettiars left behind, their names almost whispered in awe, have few parallels elsewhere in India.
Deeply religious and family-oriented, Chettiars were unapologetic capitalists whose love for beautiful things did not lead them to pursue excessive lifestyles. Within these conspicuous homes dwelt people who were frugal at heart
The name Chettiar may have stuck, but the community was originally known as Nagarathar—literally, townsfolk—and had settled in Kanchipuram and Poompuhar before floods forced them to move inland. Self-made individuals who lifted themselves up by their bootstraps, they aspired to greatness and negotiated the labyrinths of capital with spectacular success, largely because of their irrepressible versatility. Wherever they went, they made the place their own. AM Murugappa Chettiar, who set up a money-lending and banking business in Burma, was forced to move base to south India during the war, but made the best of a bad situation and spread his wings across engineering, fertilisers and financial services. Today, the Murugappa Group is worth over $740 billion.
Arguably, Chettiars are looking inward more than they ever have in the past century. “A lot of families are now interested in restoring their homes. Some are even building smaller houses in the traditional style so they can have one foot in Chettinad,” says Ganeshan Suppiah, who runs a diamond jewellery business from Chennai with his wife Meenu. Suppiah is one of the organisers of the Chettinad Heritage and Culture Festival, whose second edition, held over six days—from September 29 to October 4—saw over 130 people attending. They were hosted at four heritage properties, including The Bangala in Karaikudi, which opened its doors in 1999, welcoming the first streams of visitors to Chettinad. “Interest in Chettinad culture has been steadily growing since the opening of The Bangala. Now, there is also a sense of revival from within the community,” Suppiah says.
Sporting festive flowers, drapes and palm leaf thorans, The Bangala could not be busier. It is lunch time and every table at the highly rated restaurant is occupied. The meal is served with care on banana leaves—kuzhambu, sambar, mandi, koottu, pachadi, poriyal, a signature black rice pudding and other vegetarian fare vying with peppery chicken and fried fish for space. Shallots and tamarind tame the aromatics that are crucial to this cuisine, and the result is a gently warming meal, a far cry from the fiery curries that pass for Chettinad food at restaurants. Like the food, the architecture of Chettinad, too, has been pillaged over time—precious doors and ceilings sold for petty sums, imported curios and enamel cookware heaped at antique shops in Karaikudi. Valliappa was dismayed to find that the ceiling of an older home built by his ancestors—together owned by 140 families and eventually razed after decades of neglect—had ended up in a bar in Germany, which had bought it for `20 lakh. “You cannot recreate it if you pay ten times that,” he says. Co-ownership is both a curse and a blessing. If everyone does not pitch in for upkeep, the mansion may well fall into disrepair. The fact that it exists, however, forces families to keep returning to Chettinad long after they have migrated. “We want to look beyond our family home and our temples—many of which we are actively restoring with other members of the community—and find ways of contributing to the local economy. We are looking at opening a centre for Vee Technologies, which is our IT services company, in Karaikudi,” says Valliappa.
“Chettiars take pride in our culture, our people, and where we are from. A big part of that is the house, which is unique in its form and fosters a communal way of living. We wanted to give that to our children,” says Aarthi Ashwin, a 40-something corporate lawyer from Chennai who has built a Chettinad-style house in a patch of ancestral land in Koppanapatti, an hour’s drive from Karaikudi. “Although the scale of the house is a lot smaller, I have tried to incorporate features of the old house that I remember spending my summer holidays in,” she says. Having a house means tethering oneself to a place, she says. “We are hoping to spend every pongal there so that the kids will associate at least one festival with the village. Now that we have a home in Chettinad, my father goes back more often, and attends many social events. In a sense, the house has helped us build some roots after being away for a long time. When you live here, you see glimpses of the history but you also see the struggles.”
SRmM Annamalai Chettiar was a pioneering administrator. Another Chettiar, Karumuttu Thiagarajan Chettiar, is known for his contributions to the freedom struggle. The moral legacies these Chettiars left behind have few parallels elsewhere in India
Take a walk down the streets of Kadiapatti, 30 minutes north of Karaikudi town, and you can sense the ‘struggles’ that Ashwin speaks of. A few magnificent mansions are kept under lock and key, maintained for the sole purpose of renting them out to film crews. One has been turned into a heritage hotel by the Sangam Group. Other buildings lay abandoned, their facades tinged with the colour of loss, the giddy beauty of their ancient doors obscured by dust. Time is a treacherous concept in these parts as episodes from a happily frantic past threaten to infiltrate the day-to-day at will. In yet other partially occupied homes, there is a sense of lived history that is only just out of reach, a few memories away from the present moment. Touring one such home in Kothamangalam, Kamalahasan Ramaswamy, a Coimbatore-based architect who specialises in heritage structures, talks about the consistent workmanship of a century ago and how we have lost many skill sets over time, except those of Chettinad carpenters who continue to follow traditional principles and terminologies. When you undertake a renovation, however, architects now recommend using steel instead of wood to rein in costs. Instead of the egg plaster that gave the old walls their satiny-smooth finish, the best you can get today is lime. “It costs `1,000 per square foot to renovate a Chettinad house and this can go up to `2,000 if it’s in terrible shape,” says. To give you a sense of the scale of such an exercise, a Chettinad mansion can be as large as 20,000 square feet. “There are two kinds of people who are interested in restorations now—young people who have made some money and want to save a piece of their family heritage before it disappears, and NRIs who are rediscovering their roots,” says Ramaswamy, who is working on restoring a couple of ancestral homes, besides a marriage hall. An eco-heritage resort is also on the drawing board, he says. In his own village, Shanmuganathapuram, he has built a mini-Chettinad home for his sister, and added a vertical extension to his parents’ residence to house an office for himself.
“We are tied to Chettinad, no matter where our business takes us,” says Narayanan Chettiar, the patriarch of the SLN family from Karaikudi which owns coffee plantations and a resort in Coorg. “But after my time, I don’t think my sons will want to occupy this big old house. They are well settled in Karnataka.” Chettiars have a commitment to place wherever they go, says Muthatha Ramanathan, a human geographer who lives in Bengaluru. “Behind the optics of the mansions hides an old value system that hinges on a robust understanding of wealth creation and what place means to a community,” says Ramanathan, who, despite having lived abroad and settled in Bengaluru, has never lost touch with her community. “I go back once every three months—my mother had some rooms added to the art deco-style family bungalow,” she says. In many families, the ancestral home was used for rituals and functions and a separate bungalow was maintained to serve as a guest house for family members when they visited. You can take a Chettiar out of Chettinad, but you can never take Chettinad out of a Chettiar.